The Vanishing



(The Vanishing)
Holland/France 1988, dir. George Sluizer, 106m

Spoorloos proves that you don’t have to be a great director to make a great movie – five years after its release, George Sluizer went to Hollywood and turned out a big-budget English-language remake which is notable only for the fact that it features the one unequivocally bad performance in Jeff Bridges’ career. The Vanishing isn’t that terrible, but it’s a light year or two behind the original, which now seems like a bizarre blip in Sluizer’s otherwise deeply unspectacular filmography.

Then again, the power of Spoorloos resides in its script – concept (it’s based on a novel by Tim Krabbe) and execution. Sluizer doesn’t really add anything, he just makes a competent and careful job of transferring what’s on the page onto the screen, and if the film is visually flat, that hasn’t stopped it having a long-lasting effect upon just about everybody who’s seen it.

Spoorloos rivals Michael Haneke’s Funny Games as a nightmare scenario brought to cinematic life, but it’s a much less tense, jagged kind of film. It unrolls steadily, at an innocuous, deceptively calm, pace, and it covers a period of years – which makes the abrupt ending all the more shocking and haunting. Young Dutch couple Saskia (Johanna Ter Steege) and Rex (Gene Bervoets) are on a driving holiday through France. They stop at a service station, and Saskia goes off on an errand. Rex waits at the car. And waits. Saskia never comes back, and Rex embarks on a remorseless, years-long quest to find out what happened, and why.

At the half-way point the film gradually shifts focus from Rex onto Raymond (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), an innocuous French businessman who may or may not hold the key to Saskia’s disappearance. It’s at this stage that Spoorloos starts being much more than just a well-crafted thriller, deepening into a devastating study of one of the most remarkable and disturbing characters in recent cinema. Raymond is a monster, but Donnadieu makes him believable – perhaps almost sympathetic. Praised for a casually heroic act, Raymond rationalises that such praise means nothing unless he also shows he’s capable of the extreme opposite – so he must do the worst thing he can possibly imagine.

There are plenty of great psychological thrillers, but very few that also fascinate on the philosophical level – which is maybe why the final twist in Spoorloos resonates so strongly, and for so very long.

For additional notes on The Vanishing click here.

by Neil Young